Seeing “Us”: Jordan Peele’s Doppelgangers

Lupita Nyong'o in Us (2019)
Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019)

Highly original — yet ultimately flawed — Jordan Peele’s Us takes the age-old tale of the doppelgänger and carries it to nightmarish extremes. With none-too-subtle political commentary on the dark side of a soulless nation, the film is nonetheless one of the most effective horror films of the past decade, delivering many a genuine scare. At its core is a fear that has plagued humankind for centuries: the double — the worst part of ourselves… made flesh.

The Student of Prague (1913)
The Student of Prague (1913)

An old theme tackled numerous times by writers like Edgar Allan Poe in “William Wilson” (1839) and Dostoevsky in “The Double” (1846), the doppelgänger (literally “double goer”) as exact duplicate found its way into cinema as early as the silent Student of Prague (1913). Spencer Tracy’s turn as Dr. Jekyll into an almost identical (but sinister) Mr. Hyde (in 1941) further upped the ante of the doppelgänger as true double on the silver screen. But the theme would not be as effectively handled as it was in 1956 with the arrival of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even its 1978 remake would carry the inevitable metaphor that mirror images of ourselves not only say something ourselves, but also the world in which we live.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

In 1956, anti-communist paranoia and tyranny of McCarthyism, for example, at the very least informed the watching of the film — if not its making. Less overt, but still there, the 1978 remake smacks of a creeping conservatism threatening to overtake ineffectual intellectuals. Both films are reflections of their times.

So, too, is Us.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

A doppelgänger is only hinted at in the opening minutes of Us as a young girl named Adelaide encounters a unsettling image of herself in a funhouse mirror. The true horror of the movie does not begin until a family — whose matriarch, Red (played with intensity by Lupita Nyong’o) as the young girl now grown — encounters a silent, sinister, and oddly similar family standing in the driveway of their otherwise ideal summer home.

The doppelganger family of Us
The doppelganger family of Us

We soon learn that these doubles are violent — some disturbed and sympathetic. Others are downright sadistic. And some (though not all) are seemingly confused by who or what they are.

They are “tethered,” explains Red. And the tether can apparently be broken by murder. Only then, it seems, can the monsters be free of lives spent in the shadows. Or more specifically — as the opening title card makes clear — lives spent below ground.

Peele adeptly digs deep into the bag of tricks used before him by filmmakers like Hitchcock, Carpenter and Craven. From the motionless figure that blocks a path, to the deft (and borderline deafening) use of sound to indicate movement off screen, Peele’s direction is impeccable, earning him a place among the best of the genre (high and deserved praise after only two movies!). He delivers not only on blood and gore, but much-needed suspense in an age when too many horror films rely on nothing more than the sudden scare.

Still, the well-built tension abates when Peele begins to over analyze his premise. The conceit that attempts to explain the motivations of the doppelgängers in some ways undermines the film. It is convoluted, and it begins to unravel the more the audience thinks about it. Why do these doubles do what they do? Without giving too much away, I will say that they have been invisible for too long. They want their time in the sun.

And therein is where the socio-political message of Us lies.  It is actually there early on in the film in the form of the first answer given by Red; when she is asked who they are, she simply replies: “We are Americans.”

Peele’s doppelgängers are, (Peele’s) pun intended, us. Us as Americans. Us as families. Us as people who feel, who breathe, who bleed. But it’s the U.S. of the downtrodden. The poor. The disenfranchised. Those we do not see, or choose not to see.

The problem is that, in the end, it is not important why the doubles exist: just that they do. Horror in its purest form often works best when it is explained the least. As Lovecraft made clear decades ago, the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. Trying to build a backstory for the doubles’ reason for being ultimately breaks the tension. It pushes the audience’s suspension of disbelief too far. And it is not needed in a movie of this kind. Reveal just a little and you have the audience terrified. Reveal too much, and you have them confused.

For the film to have been the true masterpiece it could have been, the origins of the doppelgängers need never have been revealed.

It would have made their killing spree all the more terrifying, and their reach across America all the more political.

Michael Reeves & Vincent Price: The Push and Pull of Witchfinder General

Michael Reeves and Vincent Price
Michael Reeves and Vincent Price

It will be fifty years this week since the death of British director Michael Reeves at the age of 25 from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose (that some have argued was suicide). Having only ever finished three films, his greatest achievement is inarguably the work he completed just a year before his death: 1968’s Witchfinder General. Starring Vincent Price in the title role as seventeenth-century witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, the film seems to polarize fans of the genre. Much has been written about the contentious relationship between the two; and it is clear that were it not for their clashing personalities and opinions, the film would not be remembered as it is — a horror movie / pseudo-historical drama that passionately divides its audience into those who love it, and those who hate it.

Witchfinder General, UK quad poster
Witchfinder General, UK quad poster

Receiving mixed, if not outright hostile reviews upon its release (noted writer Alan Bennett called it “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen”),  Witchfinder General (retitled for an American audience as The Conqueror Worm) certainly also had its share of praise, particularly from noted publications like The Times and the Observer and the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Over the last decade or so, many have trumpeted the movie’s merits. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, for examplewrote in 2005 that it is “contemporary, and even frightening, in its evocation of cynical Puritanism and mass deception.” Aficionados of cinematography note its subtle use of color to reflect mood. Horror movie fanatics cite its realistic depictions of violence as years ahead of its time. And many Vincent Price fans — even Price himself in hindsight — consider it his best work.

But it is also criticized for its extremely serious tone, bleakness, and, at times, unabashed sadism.

FACT VS. FICTION

Matthew Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins,taken from 19th century print at Pepysian Library, Magdelene College, Cambridge

Set in England during the English civil war, Witchfinder General is a fictionalized account of the deeds of Matthew Hopkins (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins). Hopkins (c. 1620 – 12 August 1647) was believed to have been responsible for the death of hundreds of alleged witches over a period of just two years. He was prolific in his profession and apparently quite proud of it, granting himself the title Witchfinder General (a title never bestowed on him by Parliament).

The films depicts Hopkins as a man of questionable motive and morality who goes from village to village, rooting out supposed evil, and punishing those he deems to be in league with the devil. It is only the innocent that suffer (as they did historically). And Hopkins is revealed to be corrupt, using his power and influence to gain wealth and social status. In a world of superstition and fear, he is the true evil.

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins

Price infuses the character with sinister iniquity, and imposing, yet understated delusions of grandeur. This is not the Vincent Price of William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) or Roger Corman’s early 60’s campy Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This is Price, the dramatic actor. And, on many levels, it works rather effectively.

THE PUSH AND PULL

Reeves had apparently envisioned Donald Pleasance in the role. From the start, he did not care for Price, and refused to meet him at the airport. “Take me to your goddamn young genius,” Price reportedly said to Philip Waddilove, the film’s co-producer, who went in the director’s stead. According to Benjamin Halligan, in his 2003 biography simply entitled (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=qQPNCIkmnsYC)Michael Reeves (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=qQPNCIkmnsYC)when the two first met on set, Reeves told Price that “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!”

The tension had only just begun. In his book Nightmare Movies, author Kim Newman reports that during principal photography Price refused to watch dailies. He and Reeves argued about action sequences — including the director’s insistence that Price fire a pistol from horseback, a stunt that resulted in the actor being thrown from the horse. Price constantly ignored Reeves’ suggestions, resenting the director’s inexperience and youth. He once told him: “I’ve made 84 films. What have you done?” Reeves replied: “I’ve made two good ones.”

As a result of the friction, Price’s frustration (and his inebriation, as he reputedly came to the set drunk on more than one occasion) gives the role a dismissive tone that suits the character well. He may not have liked the single-minded director, but Reeves undeniably gets a fantastic performance out of his unhappy actor,

After the film’s release, Price wrote Reeves a letter, telling him that he finally understood what the director was trying to do, the kind of performance he was after. In later years, Price would go on to praise the director, and the movie. In Wheeler Dixon’s Collected Interviews: Voices from Twentieth-century Cinema, Price is quoted as saying “[Reeves] was very unstable… difficult, but brilliant.” (https://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=JWywnr1dNucC&pg=PT180&lpg=PT180&dq=He+was+very+unstable NULL.+Difficult+but+brilliant+Michael+Reeves&source=bl&ots=Uu535aXAgJ&sig=ACfU3U1ne8Jr3JdZY-LN6Ta09pp70dXfWw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwirw6vKwKrgAhVSnuAKHegdC9AQ6AEwC3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=He%20was%20very%20unstable NULL.%20Difficult%20but%20brilliant%20Michael%20Reeves&f=false)

It would seem that Reeves pushed Price. And Price pushed back, dragging the entire production with him. It’s a palpable pull between the two — one of some considerable gravity, as Price turns in and Reeves pulls off a character of depth and menace. It is a push and pull that many who watch the film similarly feel— an attraction and repulsion that is often the litmus test of the best of horror films. Witchfinder General passes — ever surpasses — that test.

LEGACY

Writing for the The British Film Institute’s “Film Forever” website, Adam Sovell recently extolled the film’s virtues (https://www NULL.bfi NULL.org NULL.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/witchfinder-general-michael-reeves-vincent-price), exploring its themes of “pastoral violence” and “weaponised belief.” Quite artsy and intellectual for a horror film full of torture and depravity.

In 2015, the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded Witchfinder General a special prize as one of a handful of “Best Rediscoveries.” (https://bostonfilmcritics NULL.org/2015-special-awards/) On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a critic’s rating of 88% fresh (https://www NULL.rottentomatoes NULL.com/m/the_conqueror_worm).

Indeed, it is worth seeking out. A blu-ray version (https://www NULL.avforums NULL.com/review/witchfinder-general-blu-ray-review NULL.1714) was released in 2011 (note for Americans: the extras apparently do not play on Region 1 players). A wonderful 5 disc Vincent Price DVD collection (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vincent-Price-Collection-Abominable-Witchfinder/dp/B000SK5ZFM/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=vincent+price+collection&qid=1549652210&s=Movies+%26+TV&sr=1-4) released in 2007 includes the film, but it does not include all of the extras on the blu-ray. What is included, however, is a very good commentary by co-producer (and airport shuttle driver) Phillip Waddilove (along with Actor Ian Ogilvy), and a very good, half hour documentary about Michael Reeves.

In the commentary, Ogilvy says the film’s abrupt and bleak ending — lauded by critics as an artistic statement well ahead of its time — was a happy accident. Turns out Price had to get to New York to star in a musical, so the filmmakers ran out of time to shoot the last three pages of the script. Good that they did. A “happy ending” just wouldn’t fit such this film.

Like Michael Reeves’ life, the end of Witchfinder General leaves one wondering what might have been — and if would we even be talking about it fifty years later had it all not gone down the way it did.

By Christopher Michael Davis